Monday, May 22, 2017

Mortality and My Library

It is the first day of summer, at least according to my own personal academic calendar. The college’s commencement was this past Saturday. My official duties have been discharged for the year. Too many writing obligations loom for the summer; so, of course, I’m procrastinating. The piles and piles of books on the floor beside our bed somehow became stacks in our youngest son’s bedroom. But he has now returned from college. So those piles were dumped in my office while I was out of town, barring the way to my desk. This is a welcome distraction.  I “have” to look for shelf space for all these books in order to get down to work. 

The piles have a kind of archaeological quality: they are like the strata of my attention and fancies over the past year, the fits and starts of my curiosity. All the dust on a volume of Shelby Foote’s Civil War history indicate that it has been the bedrock of the stack. Tiny volumes like Patti Smith’s Auguries of Innocence got lost in the layers of larger tomes. It now sits on the stairs to be returned to my bedside, along with A. Scott Berg’s Max Perkins: Editor of Genius. After all, these are the sorts of books that summers are for. 

Some of these volumes look at me with stern judgment, signals of failure: my bookmark indicates I only made it halfway through Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, though the dog-ears and pencil notations indicate some vested interest. Issue of Paris Review and n+1 are half-read, displaced by the next issue. 

i recall fondly my second readings of George Saunders’ Tenth of December and Adam Haslett’s collection, You Are Not a Stranger Here, as I prepped for their novels, which were both excellent.  

The nonfiction layers are curious to me now: Catching Fire, an evolutionary history of cooking sits not far from Peter Gay’s Modernism: The Lure of Heresy—which brings to mind a delightful visit to Powell’s in Portland. Indeed, handling each book comes with a whiff of its provenance—in Pasadena and Asheville, a gift from a friend, a book review assignment. 

And as I try to find room for all of these on shelves already burgeoning and lined two rows deep, I’m returning books alongside others unread. Despite all the Julian Barnes I read this year, there are still books on the shelf I’ve not made it to yet. There’s volume 3 of Foote’s civil war Narrative glaring at me unread. I put Colson Whitehead on the shelf and am reminded that Richard Wright is still waiting for me. As are volumes of Updike and Edith Wharton. I find a place for Hitchens’ Arguably only to be reminded that I have all these treasures from Alfred Kazin waiting to be read. 

A young man builds his library in hope. Each paperback treasure is acquired as an act of aspiration. A library is an image of the man he hopes to be: the canon he constructs is a standard of what he thinks he ought to know. It grows quickly, in unexpected ways, exceeding his attention. But there will always be more time to read, right? 

A middle-aged man tends his library with a more sombre aspect. Reshelving a book unfinished is one more failure, a door one closes perhaps never to return. When I put The Noise of Time back on the shelf, I recall all the places Barnes has accompanied me on this adventure. But I see some of his novels still unread and wonder if I’ll ever get back to this corner of the library. In fact, it was Barnes who gave me a word for this: le réveil mortel—the wake-up call of mortality. Who knew tidying your library could be such an existential risk?


At some point you realize: I will die with books unread on my shelf. So be it. The grass withers, the flowers fade, the pages become mildewed and musty. So too will I.   Even those unread books are a sign of aspiration, ambition, hope. I’ll die reading. I trust there are libraries in the kingdom.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016: The Year in Reading

No "bests." No rankings. No claims to objectivity or trendsetting or reports from secret avant-garde gardens of literature.  Just some impressions looking back over a year in reading. (You can see a glimpse of some of my reading at GoodReads.)

Novels that haunt me: 2016 was a pretty incredible year for fiction.  I won't likely finish Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad before the year is out (I just started it), so won't include it here--though so far it is remarkable.  The two novels that have most impressed me--and impressed themselves upon me--are Don DeLillo's Zero K and Adam Haslett's Imagine Me Gone.

Zero K is poised for the moment--a character study of trust amidst failing states and outsized hopes in technology, taking seriously an enduring religious impulse that characterizes our secular age.  It's conceptual scope is ambitious while it's plot and dramatis personae are focused and minimal.

Imagine Me Gone is a zoomed-in family drama that dives into the ripple effects of mental health, all constructed around a musical motif that generates metaphors and provides a cadence to the story.  Having been a fan of Haslett's short stories, I wasn't sure his gifts would translate into a novel.  Imagine Me Gone blew through that skepticism.  The energy and insight of Haslett's prose more than make the jump to the novel form.  Here's just a taste of a passage I noted:
I took my first pill as soon as I filled the script at the CVS in Copley, a few blocks from Dr. Gregory's office. By the time I'd reached Newton Centre on the Green Line, I couldn't stop smiling. The kind of big, solar smile that suffuses your whole torso, as if your organs are grinning. Soon I began to laugh, at nothing at all, pure laughter, which brought tears to my eyes, no doubt making me appear completely insane to the other passengers. But happier I have rarely been. For that hour and the three or four that followed, I was lifted down off a hook in the back of my skull that I hadn't even know I'd been hanging from. Here was the world unfettered by dread. 

Book I couldn't finish: Anthony Lane Fox's biography of Augustine was positively doldrumesque. Though I took the book on assignment, after multiple attempts, I finally had to abandon ship. Life's too short to read horrible biographies--especially when Peter Brown's bio is right here on the shelf next to it. No one has yet improved on Brown's masterpiece.

Poetry I can't put down: I should note Ocean Vuong's new collection, Night Sky with Exit Wounds, which is melancholy and discomforting and yet charged with gratitude and hope.  But there is one poem that has been an absolute game-changer, a poem I bumped into by accident almost but has spun tendrils around my heart.

Like some of the most important books in my life, I picked up this book on a discount table (I'm a long-time believer in "bibliographical providence").  Specifically, I ran into Ted Hughes Selected Translations at Vroman's in Pasadena, one of my favorite shops and an annual haunt.  A fan of Hughes' guttural, earthy, Yorkshire poetry, I somehow had missed this part of his corpus so added it to my stack.  Only several months later did I wade into the collection which ranges from ancient to contemporary poets.  It was a poem by the Hungarian poet, Ferenc Juhász that sucked me in.  It is almost sacrilege to try to describe "The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets" in prose.  Try imagine Pan's Labyrinth as poetry, a 13-page compressed epic in which a mother is calling to a distant son who has fled.  The poem has a cyclical cadence about it, a call-and-response that feels like a litany, unearthing death and debts and all the things that make us sons and daughters. I have re-read it countless times in 2016 and don't expect to stop anytime soon.

A Life: I read some marvelous biographies and memoir this year (Camus; Kissinger; Bruce Springteen's Born to Run; Accidental Life, Terry McDonell's insightful romp through magazines and editing; and more). But it is the heartbreak of Stefan Zweig's The World of Yesterday that has lodged itself as a thorn in my soul.  I'm still not really in a place to write about it--the beauty and honesty of Zweig's prose and his paean to Vienna amidst the horror and deceit of Hitler's rise.  The displacement; the desecration; the decimation of a culture and a people.  The quotidian evil of war. The erosion of rights. The striving for a cosmopolitan community despite the clamping down of borders and the stomp of nationalist jackboots all around.  Zweig makes you face things you hope he's wrong about: "If there is one new art that we have had to learn, those of us who have been hunted down and forced into exile at a time hostile to all art and all collections, then it is the art of saying goodbye to everything that was once our pride and joy."

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Sonic Habits: Thoughts on an Advent Hymn

When it comes to matters musical, I am a rank amateur--a lover without training or expertise; a listener who knows what he likes; a hearty singer without much skill. I'm grateful for a profession in which I can constantly create an acoustical ambience of music to wallpaper my workday.

However, as a philosopher with interest in liturgy, I'm also somewhat attuned to what my friend Jeremy Begbie calls the "sonic environment" of worship.  Beyond the theological and imagination-shaping significance of lyrics, Begbie has taught me to be attuned to musical form as its own kind of lived theology (a while back this spawned a little reflection on Ryan Adams and Taylor Swift).

So today I've been pondering a classic advent hymn, "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming," that we sang at Sherman Street CRC this morning.  Rooted in the imagery of Isaiah 11 (the OT lectionary reading for this second Sunday of advent), with a bit of admittedly romantic flourish and speculation, it was the tune that grabbed me today.  Our hymnal sets this to a 1599 German tune, Alte Catholische Kirchengesäng (with harmonization by Michael Praetorius).  You can listen to a rendition of it; or here's a snapshot of the tune (from a different hymnal source):

What struck me is how I--and to some extent, our congregation, I think--kept getting hung up on those third half notes (in the first stanza on "from," "of," "when," etc.).  It's like our sonic habits are used to a certain cadence and tempo that keep things moving.  At some unconscious level, we expect the next note to come more quickly.  We're feeling stretched and a bit impatient by those two half notes already and when the third arrives we're sonically impatient. Our inner tempo, trained by the cadences of a frenetic pace that always gets its way, perturbedly tells our tongues: "C'mon already--let's get this show on the road! I haven't got all day."  We want a quarter note but the hymn hangs us up on that third half note over and over again.  We're asked to sing another half note in a quarter note world.

Which is precisely why the tune of the hymn is its own kind of Advent discipline.  The notes are teaching us to wait, to experience the impatience of waiting (again!) for the Judge who is coming--who does "not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy; with justice he will give decision for the poor of the earth" (Is. 11:3-4).

How long, O Lord?

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

An American Lent

"What are you giving up for Lent?"

This question tells us a lot about American Christianity. While the question alludes to historic Christian practices of fasting and self-denial associated with the penitential season of Lent, the syntax of the question also points out a crucial shift: even our self-denial is an act of self-expression. Our submission to discipline is converted to act of will power.

The sociologist Stephen Warner talks about the "de facto congregationalism" that characterizes American Christianity such that even episcopalian and liturgical traditions become governed by dynamics of autonomy and independence. Perhaps we could equally talk about a "de facto Pelagianism" characteristic of American Christianity such that even those practices of self-denial become mediums of expression and choice. (In my new book, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit, I describe this as an "expressivism" that has captured our understanding of worship and discipleship, in contrast to a more historic appreciation for the importance and priority of formation.)

In a more robustly communal practice of the faith, my self-denial is not up to me. The practices of fasting and feasting are not a matter of choice: they are part of the spiritual architecture of the church. It's not so much that I choose to abstain from meat; meat is not going to be served. There are communal commitments embedded in an environment that takes the emphasis off of my choice and will power and instead throws me into the formative power of the practice.  My participation in the formative disciplines of Lent isn't another chance for me to show something to God (or others).  It is an invitation to have my hungers retrained.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Liturgical Lessons from Ryan Adams' 1989

Taylor Swift's 1989 is often the soundtrack for my morning run. Its pop energy is just what my middle-aged body needs to keep pace. And "Shake It Off" queues up just as I'm starting to flag and I'm energized to shake off the doldrums, and all the haters.

This morning I bumped Ryan Adams' cover of 1989 into the run rotation.  It was a revelation.

First lesson: his is not a soundtrack for vigorous exercise. More like the score for a dark, lonely Friday night corkscrewing yourself into a bottle of bourbon.

But the second lesson is more important: Adams' version taught me something about worship.

When you listen to Adams' cover of Swift's album, you finally realize how incredibly sad it is--that buried down beneath the perky melodies and auto-tuned precision of a pristine sound is a lyrical world of heartbreak, disappointment, and despair.

Not until you hear Adams' mournful rendition, in the gravelly timbre of his voice, does the truth of 1989 disclose itself.  It's like, up to now, the melodic tenor and sonic grammar of Tswift's album was lying about what it said. The sound isn't true. There is a kind of disclosure and revelation and truth that is viscerally carried in the sonic environment of the album, and it took the heartbroken musical genius of Ryan Adams to unveil this--to point out the cognitive (and pre-cognitive!) dissonance at work in Taylor Swift's original.  Adams' cover tells the truth about the music, and thus tells the truth about a sad, broken world by redeploying Swift's lyrical honesty in a sonic environment that fits.

(Jeremy Begbie could explain this much better than I ever could, but I can't imagine convincing him to listen to either version of 1989!)

What does this have to do with worship?  We live, you might say, in a major chord culture.  We live in a society that wants even its heartbreaking lyrics delivered in pop medleys that keep us upbeat, tunes we can dance to. We live for the "hook," that turn that makes it all OK, that lets us shake it off and distract ourselves to death.  And this cultural penchant for a certain sonic grammar seeps into the church and the church's worship, so that we want songs and hymns and spiritual songs that do the same.  But as a result we often create a (pre)cognitive dissonance between the Bible's honesty, carried in our hymns and psalms, and our pop retunings.  Or we embed them in a sonic liturgical environment that endeavors to be, above all, "upbeat" and positive--a weekly pick-up encouraging you to just "shake it off."

But then a Ryan Adams comes along and takes you back to lament, and reminds you of all the minor chord moments of the biblical narrative, and invites you into a sonic environment that actually tells the truth about the broken world you live in, and that your neighbors live in, and that refugees from Syria live in.  Worship should be a proclamation that tells the truth, not just lyrically, but sonically.  And that means music that resonates with broken hearts.  Even though the Gospel exhorts us to "lift up our hearts," sometimes that only happens because God in Christ comes down to meet us in our brokenheartedness.  That will sometimes happen in song.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Do not be intimidated by the torrent of impiety"

In the early reconnaissance stages of a new book on St. Augustine, I've been reading his Expositions of the Psalms and came across this striking passage, given the time in which we find ourselves.  In some ways, it reminded me of my Cardus colleague Ray Pennings' recent op-ed in the National Post.

Augustine, preaching on (Vulgate) Psalm 57:8 ("They will be scorned like water that flows away"):
You should not be intimidated by rivers that are reputed to be powerful torrents, my brothers and sisters. They are full of winter rain, but don't worry; after a short time their force abates. The water rushes down and roars for a while, but it will soon subside; it cannot continue its spate for long. There have been plenty of heresies that have died away.  They flowed between their bands as long as any force remained in them; but then the water level dropped, the river-beds dried, and their memory scarcely survives today. People do not recall they they ever existed.  They will be scorned like water that runs away.  But the same is true of the whole world. It does on in its noisy course for a while and tries to drag along anyone it can catch. All the unbelievers, all the proud folk, crash against the rocks of their pride with a din like that of water rushing toward a confluence, but they must not frighten you. They are only swollen winter rivers that cannot flow all the year round; they will inevitably dwindle toward their proper place, which means the end of them. 
Yet the Lord himself drank from this torrent of the world. Here it was that he suffered, from this same torrent he drank, but he drank by the wayside, as he passed it, for he did not stand in the way of sinners.  What does scripture say of him? He will drink from the torrent beside the way, and therefore he will raise his head (Ps. 109 [110]:7).  This means: because he died, he was glorified; because he suffered, he rose again. Had he been unwilling to drink from the torrent on the way, he would not have died; if he had not died, he would not have risen from the aded, and would not have been glorified. But in fact he will drink from the torrent beside the way, and therefore he will raise his head.  Our Head is raised up already; let his members follow him.

~Augustine, Expositions of the Psalms, 57.16

Saturday, June 20, 2015

On Fatherless Days

In memory of Franz Wright.

Father's Day is easy for me: I have none.  They all left.

So I don't have to find an awkward card amidst the cloying selection on offer.  I don't have to make the clichéd choice between necktie or power tool.  I don't have to endure the awkwardness of a largely wordless afternoon in the presence of my progenitor, or remember to call and then try to wrangle a conversation out of the receiver.  ("I don't have to," of course, is it's own sort of spin, papering over the "I don't get to" buried beneath it.)

So Father's Day is easy for me.

It's the rest of the fatherless days that are difficult.

When I was 12 years old, my father divulged his affair with my mother's best friend.  He promptly kicked me, my brother, and my mother out of the house and moved in his mistress, her children taking over our bedrooms.  We moved to a different town and saw him only a handful of times after that.  The encounters I remember were abusive and terrifying.  The last time I laid eyes on him was when our oldest son was born.  That was almost twenty-three years ago.

My mother remarried.  Her husband was the male presence in my life during my teen years, a mostly spiteful, antagonistic father-substitute.  But I'd take what I could get.

He left too.

In many ways, I've been a father longer than I've been a son.  While I make no claims of being either good or exemplary, the most sacred call I'm trying to answer in my life is to be a faithful husband and father.  I've spent every ounce of psychic energy I have to try and make sure that Father's Day is never "easy" for my kids by simply showing, on every other day: "I'm still here."

I'm still here and I'm not going anywhere because I don't want to miss a thing.  I don't want to miss you wearing a cape and rubber boots to the grocery store, or the first time you got an earring (which we did together!), or watching you meander toward finding who you're called to be, or seeing you blossom into the very image of your mother.  I don't even want to miss the disappointments and darkest moments because I can't imagine how difficult it must be to endure those without a father.  Or rather, I can, which is why I can't imagine how my own father could let that happen and why I promise I'll still be here.

I'm still here even on the days that I blow it and exasperate you.  I'm still here on the days I have to tell you, "I'm sorry."  I'm still here even on those days when it seems like I'm a million miles away, distant and detached and aloof because I'm haunted by the overwhelming absence of my father who has torn a hole in my life. Like Keats' "negative capability," this is the sort of absence that is a presence, a hole that takes up space and eats you alive.  It's an absence that makes it difficult to sometimes be present to others, even when you're in the same room.  It's this distance that Franz Wright finally named for me years ago, in a poem about the destructive presence of his own father who left.  As Wright puts it,

If I’m walking the streets of a citycovering every square inch of the continentall its lights outand empty of people,even thenyou are there 
If I’m walking the streetsoverwhelmed with this love for the living 
I will still be a blizzard at sea 
Since you left me at eight I have always been lonely 
star-far from the person right next to me, but 
closer to me than my bones you 
you are there

I'll always be in the room and will ask you to forgive me.  It's just that I'm fathering without a father, working without a net, trying my damndest to pull off this acrobatic trick of not leaving. That's how I love you.

Thankfully, despite all these absences and departures, I have found a model and exemplar.  Or rather, I have been found by a model Father.  So there are no fatherless days because I have been found and adopted by a heavenly Father who promises to never leave me nor forsake me.  Indeed, I've been invited into the life of the triune God who embodies everything this deeply human heart of a son is longing for.  The God I worship is a Father who loves his Son, and who says what any and every son longs to hear:

And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:16-17 ESV).
And I know that I am in his Son, I am his son.  I have spent a lifetime hoping to hear these words from my earthly fathers.  God only knows how much my frenetic, driven energies are still subconscious cries to be recognized by a father who left, who never asks, who has never come looking for me.  But the grace of the Gospel is to know that I am a son who is beloved.  It may be heretical, it may be indulgent, but one of my deepest eschatological longings is to be welcomed into the kingdom by the Son who shows me the Father (John 14:9), who will tousle my hair like a boy and simply say, "Good job. I'm proud of you."

All of this was stirred up for me this week by another poem, by Seamus Heaney, a masterful meditator on the relationship between fathers and sons.  His poem, "The Follower," stopped me in my tracks:

My father worked with a horse-plough,                             1
His shoulders globed like a full sail strung
Between the shafts and the furrow.
The horses strained at his clicking tongue.

An expert. He would set the wing                                     5
And fit the bright steel-pointed sock.
The sod rolled over without breaking.
At the headrig, with a single pluck.

Of reins, the sweating team turned round
And back into the land. His eye                                        10
Narrowed and angled at the ground,
Mapping the furrow exactly.

I stumbled in his hob-nailed wake,
Fell sometimes on the polished sod;
Sometimes he rode me on his back                                  15
Dipping and rising to his plod.


I wanted to grow up and plough,
To close one eye, stiffen my arm.
All I ever did was follow
In his broad shadow around the farm.                              20

I was a nuisance, tripping, falling,
Yapping always. But today
It is my father who keeps stumbling
Behind me, and will not go away.


I never want Father's Day to be as "easy" for my kids as it has been for me.  Which is just a way of saying I don't want them to have to endure fatherless days.  I'm not going away.  But I'm not haunting them.  I don't want to burden them.  I'm cheering them on, ready to pick them up when they stumble. I want to be that net I never had, so they can acrobatically launch into their lives, confident in the love of a father loved by the Father that loves them, too.